FL State Rep. Joe Harding discusses his parental rights bill and related controversy

Rep. Joe Harding speaks during the Marion County Delegation at the Klein Conference Center at the College of Central Florida in Ocala, Fla. on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted April 13, 2022 | By Jennifer Hunt Murty

Following a busy legislative season that brought local State Rep. Joe Harding national attention for his controversial Parental Rights in Education measure, which opponents have nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay’’ bill, the Gazette met with the District 22 representative to discuss this and other timely issues.

In an interview prior to the session, Harding, a first-term Republican legislator from Williston who represents Levy County and part of Marion County, did not identify the parental rights bill as a priority. But Harding says he seized an opportunity once he got to Tallahassee.

“There were a couple folks out there working on this issue and just over time it kind of emerged that I had an opportunity to bring the energy to push this thing through and get it done. And it was pretty cool to be able to do that,” he explained.

“What these school districts have started to do is separate sex ed, the teaching of the sex act or prevention of sex, from all those things that would come with sex ed from teaching gender theory sexual orientation because they don’t believe the two are the same.”

“And I honestly don’t believe the two are the same,’’ Harding continued. “But I do think that teaching someone that they could have 100 different types of gender is not the same thing as teaching them about sexual education. So, what started to happen was while we were clear about what we did not want in sex ed and what grades that education was not appropriate for they were still able to advance teaching gender theory because it wasn’t considered sex ed. The second piece [of the bill] was on the critical decisions relating to a child’s welfare and well-being.”

Harding said he learned of Florida counties where school districts had gender transition guides officials could use to help a student transition their gender without parental involvement.

Harding says he first started exploring the issues at the end of last year when he found out about teaching support guides from different districts. “There was one in Palm Beach County that had a gender-breadman instead of a gingerbread man. And it’s actually like a gingerbread figure that teaches gender identity as being something that’s what you identify as and not as you’re born.”

Harding admitted that the Genderbread Person, as the material is called, was not inserted in the curriculum. Still, he said, it’s “a resource guide that the teachers have to use to teach with.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis also held up a copy of the material during a March 28 press conference explaining why he was signing the bill.

Harding provided a copy of the Genderbread Person material he said was from the Palm Beach County School District. The Palm Beach County district did not reply to the Gazette’s request for comment. However, a Palm Beach County School Board member said recently that sexual orientation and gender identity are not taught in kindergarten through third grade in the district.

“I was shocked,’’ Harding continued. “I had no idea that that existed, and that’s one of the largest school districts in Florida.”

Harding said the Leon County school district “was teaching gender (identity) through using a unicorn and, again, it was about your sex not necessarily being what you’re born with, it’s what you identify as.”

Harding did not provide a copy of the unicorn material, and an inquiry to Leon County Schools for the material was not returned.

Harding provided the Gazette a copy of a questionnaire from the Martin County School District entitled Transgender/Gender Nonconforming Student Support Plan.

Jennifer DeShazo, a spokesperson for the Martin County district, confirmed that the questionnaire provided by Harding was “a portion of a guide that was available for staff use prior to the implementation of HB241/Chapter 1014 (known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights) in July 2021.’’

“Our procedures have been modified since that time to ensure complete compliance with legislation,’’ she added. “It is important to note that every student support plan in existence has the signature of the student’s parent/guardian. The guide, including the portion you referenced, is currently being overhauled by school personnel and legal counsel to: (1) provide all students with access to support and (2) ensure it is compliant with all Florida and federal laws.”

Harding also provided the Gazette a copy of the one-page Manatee School District “LGBTQ+ District Guidelines.”

Mitchell Teitelbaum, general counsel for the Manatee District, confirmed that the guidelines provided by Harding were in place prior to the enactment of the bill. “Based upon the Parental Bill of Rights that take effect July 1, 2022, the School District will follow all Florida Statutes and await guidance from the Florida Department of Education,” wrote Teitelbaum by email.

“Even folks that are on the left would agree that this is gender theory…and it’s still debatable, this theory that gender is not what you’re born with, it’s some other thing that’s determined through other influence. So that specifically was shocking to me, and over time I started to see that there was a real need to address the gap in parental rights,“ said Harding.

There was one part of the bill that Harding said “got no airtime” yet he felt was particularly “very important.”

“Any questionnaire that a child is doing in the school district should be approved by the parent,’’ he said. “And when it comes to health decisions, if your child gets hurt at school, you know you want the school to be able to administer first aid. But if your child needs pharmaceuticals, antidepressants or whatever, obviously that’s not appropriate for them to do without your involvement.

“What school district started to do is they did one health release and in that health release there was a blanket statement. Basically, you gave away all your rights to make any health care decisions for the student, and there were a handful of counties that really stood out.’’

Pointing to St. Lucie County and Orange County, Harding opinioned that it was easier for the districts to navigate potential issues by leaving the health care releases “super blank” or overly broad.

Harding said that isn’t the case in the Marion County School District, where the release is more itemized so that parents were able to spell out their intentions easier.

The Gazette was not able independently review any of these district’s releases.

“The third and final piece is really the whole point of the whole bill, which is the enforcement issue,” Harding said.

Under the bill, parents and school districts have certain periods of time for notification and resolution of any conflicts. If there is no resolution, the parent can ask for a special magistrate, who is a member of the Florida Bar, to recommend a decision to the State Board of Education to reject or approve.

Or the parent can file a lawsuit against the district for declaratory judgment finding the school district is in violation of the new law and seek injunctive relief, financial damages and attorney’s fees and other costs against the district.

Getting the bill filed and passed

“A lot of the bills, the major bills, are passed by the Legislature are 95% bipartisan and 60 or 65% were unanimous. The 5% of the bills that are controversial, oftentimes the details do not get worked out until through committees, right before session,” said Harding.

“You can’t take on every big issue that needs to be addressed. You’ve got to pick a couple and this issue worked. The parental rights bill really came from some concerns I had in connection with talking to the education (committee) chairs, talking to staff, kind of figuring out where they were and what I knew to be the issues,” he said.

“That bill really did not come together until like two to three days before the filing deadline,’’ Harding noted. “I think we filed it on the morning of the filing deadline. We were working on finalizing how much we were going to take on in that one bill, we had even broader things originally.”

On being called homophobic and partisan politics

Harding said when critics and the media started referring to his legislation as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, he at first thought they were talking about a totally different measure. When lobbying against the bill began, he said he met with Floridians who opposed it but he said he was not approached by the “activist lobbyists” fighting the bill.

“So, when I started hearing what they were saying, I’m like, first of all, they’ve never reached out to me and that’s different. Most of the legitimate folks that lobby issues typically start with the person that’s running the bill to understand what you’re doing and what your motivations are. And even if you’re against it, you try to find and build some common ground, and maybe there’s some piece of it that you can work together on.”

At one point, Harding saw a letter that described him a “homophobic bigot running a bill that cancels or chills gay people.”

He said he was initially shocked to find himself described that way but felt like it was a political move to “tap into those fighting for gay equality. They were trying to tap into the rage and anger, mostly from the left, and get the gay community to fight us.”

Speaking to the national media attention, “This bill, it just cracked me up, I’d turn on the TV, I see him talking like this is a person that is saying all these things about me, and he has never talked to me or met me.”

Eventually, Harding said, he did get a chance to sit down with the “activist lobbyist” because of his own efforts to reach out to them. Unfortunately, it was past the time to make major changes since the bill was already too far along in committee.

Harding believes that his bill was used to whip up “partisan fervor” turning it into a “giant culture issue.”

Instead, Harding said the main focus of the bill was about “age appropriateness. Which, if you ask any person out here, most people walking on the street would agree with our bill. And then the empowerment of parents, which is pretty bipartisan as far as you look – even polling nationally.”

Harding said he’s been resistant to argue against those who call him homophobic because he doesn’t want to give those critics credibility. “Anybody who knows me, knows that it’s not true,’’ he said.

Asked about any perceptions that conservatives are not accepting of gay citizens, Harding replied, “I think maybe there was a time that that was true. I don’t feel like that’s true in the current era.”

Harding said gay rights issues and trans right issues should remain separate when considering legislation.

“I do think that the trans movement is so different,’’ he said. “I’ve heard this from people in the gay community that are Republican and Democrat that they’re [gay people] being brought into this other movement that they really aren’t part of. It’s not really their movement, and they’re terrified of it because I think it kind of pulls them backwards. It muddies the water a little bit.”

Harding feels the support

In recent months, especially during the height of the controversy when critics from President Joe Biden to major companies including Disney were criticizing the bill, Harding said he received an extraordinary amount of donations to his reelection campaign.

According to a press release, his campaign raised “$70,000 during the month of March while returning $3,126 in donations to Disney. Of significant note, over 3,700 donors contributed to Harding’s campaign, the vast majority being small-dollar donations from individuals, about two thirds from states outside Florida. The average donation for the month was under $19.”